Most People Don’t Under-Perform, They’re Under-Led – 5 Ways Leaders Sabotage Performance

Slip on Banana PeelNot too many people get out of bed in the morning, head in to work, and say to themselves “I’m really looking forward to screwing up today!” Sure, there are always a few bad apples with horrible attitudes that seem to thrive on getting away with doing the least amount of work possible, but by and large most people want to succeed on the job. So why do we struggle with so many under-performers in the workplace?

“I think most people don’t want to under-perform,” Kathie McGrane, Course Manager/Management Analyst at the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said to me in a recent conversation, “they’re just under-led.” Kathie’s insightful comment got me thinking about the ways leaders unknowingly sabotage the performance of their people. Here’s five common ways:

1. They don’t intentionally focus on building trust – Trust is the bedrock foundation of any successful relationship. There isn’t a business or leadership strategy around that will make up for a lack of trust between leaders and followers. Without trust your leadership effectiveness will always be limited. The problem is that most people think trust “just happens,” like some sort of relationship osmosis. The truth is that trust is built through the use of very specific behaviors, and if leaders don’t specifically focus on establishing healthy, high-trust relationships with their people, under-performance will be the norm.

2. Lack of clear goals and expectations – This past week I conducted a job interview and the candidate described the training she received at her previous job. She said “I was given a Sharpie pen, shown to my desk, and told to ‘figure it out.'” A CEO I’ve coached in the past was explaining his frustration about one of his VP’s not “stepping up” to lead like he expected him to. When I asked him if he had made those expectations clear to the individual he replied, “Well, now that you mention it, no, I haven’t.” And we wonder why people under-perform? Your people need to have clear goals and expectations so they know exactly what is required. Make sure they know what a good job looks like.

3. Leaders use the wrong leadership style – When it comes to leadership, one size does NOT fit all. Leaders commonly under or over-supervise people. Under-supervision is when the leader is too hands-off when an employee needs more direction and support on a goal or task. Over-supervision is when the leader micromanages too much when the employee is competent and committed to do the task on his/her own. Leaders need to understand that a person can be at different levels of development on different goals or tasks. Just because an employee may be a superstar in organizing and managing projects, doesn’t mean he/she is a pro at giving presentations to a group of executives. Leaders need to use a variety of leadership styles to give employees the right amount of direction and support they need on each of their job areas.

4. They don’t stay in touch with performance – Leaders not being aware of the performance trends of their employees is often a cause for under-performance. Leaders should have regular one-on-one meetings with their direct reports every 1 to 2 weeks. The one-on-one meeting serves to keep the leader informed of how the employee is doing on his/her goals and tasks, and it allows the employee to ask for needed direction and support. Too often leaders fall prey to “seagull management” – They occasionally fly in, squawk and make a bunch of noise, crap all over the place, and then fly away. Don’t be a seagull manager. Stay in regular touch with your employees so you can give them the day-to-day coaching they need to succeed.

5. Fail to give helpful feedback – Many leaders fail to give any feedback, and when they do, it’s often not very helpful to the employee. One type of feedback is praise. When employees are doing a good job, let them know! A well-timed praising does wonders for developing trust in a relationship. Redirection is another type of feedback that leaders should use when an employee’s performance is off-track. Redirection is specific about what needs to be corrected, timely and relevant to the situation at hand, and about moving forward. Don’t gunny sack feedback and surprise the employee with it at the annual performance review.

When leaders find that employees are under-performing, the first action they need to take is to look in the mirror and examine what they’ve done (or not done) to set the employee up for success. There are certainly situations where leaders will find they’ve done everything possible to help an employee perform at an acceptable level and the best thing is to part ways. However, leaders will often find they’ve unknowingly sabotaged the performance of their people by neglecting some of these leadership fundamentals.

40 Comments on “Most People Don’t Under-Perform, They’re Under-Led – 5 Ways Leaders Sabotage Performance

  1. Pingback: Leaders should have this in mind all the time | kharrouHicham

  2. Spot on leadership advice, Randy. Another point is failure to recognize what the real problem is. Leaders who focus on the wrong problem disappoint team members and distract an organization. Leaders need to spend the time to define the problem correctly.

    Thanks! Jon

    • Excellent point Jon! Sometimes in our exuberance to “take care of business,” we charge ahead without taking the time to clearly define the problem or situation.

      Take care,


  3. Pingback: Most People Don't Under-Perform, They're Under-Led - 5 Ways Leaders Sabotage Performance | Advanced Vectors

  4. It is not about correctief people but inspiring and soundboarding
    Most like this,few get this
    Fullly agree

  5. I Agree.
    SeaGull management without knowing what the staff is doing has become the big problem in the big organisation.
    Just to add that the task without prioritisation cause the staff running to different directions at the same time which tore them apart.
    Many leaders are just a high-end postman to relay message without understanding the load of the tasks encounters by the staff.

  6. Reblogged this on Musings in a nutshell and commented:
    Employees leave managers, not companies. Seagull management companies do not practice open communications and are often opinionated and isn’t open to listening others.

    • I agree about why employees leave. So, to turn it around, I would say: don’t just join a good company, make sure you join a good leader / manager.

  7. Pingback: OTR Links 07/30/2013 | doug --- off the record

  8. Pingback: Most People Don’t Under-Perform, They’re Under-Led – 5 Ways Leaders Sabotage Performance | InspireGlobal

  9. Good points. I would like to add a similar statement: “Leaders don’t go to work saying to themselves: I really look forward to being a bad leader today!” Many leaders are overloaded and don’t have the luxury of doing the right things that they know they should – or so they may feel, which leads to a whole new debate on own goals and priorities.

    • Excellent thoughts! I agree that the same mentality applies to leaders. Most want to do a good job but are faced with difficult situations that don’t always bring out the best of their leadership capabilities.

      Thanks for your insights,


  10. There are 2 huge items missing from the list of 5:
    1. Too many leaders interfere and micro-manage, and thus drive morale down,… and
    2. When it is time to take credit, they put themselves up front and when it is time to take blame, they put themselves last when it should be the other way around.

    • Sumit – those are two excellent additions. Micromanaging and taking credit for other people’s work are big trust “busters.”

      Take care,


  11. I have to agree with Sumit, micromanaging and bosses interfering too much with their employees is also one of the biggest reasons why they under perform. Great list and post!

  12. Great leaders are rare in my experience. And great organizations who support them are even rarer. I had a twenty-year career in Corporate America and worked for only one great leader for a little over a year before he retired.

    I worked hard to be exactly the kind of leader you are encouraging here, high trust, praise people, etc. And I can attest to the fact that it does work. In one 7 year period, my department generated $3.2 million dollars of recurring savings and almost $10 million dollars of non-recurring savings for the company because of the amazing performance of my people. But the C-Suite refused to allow me to reward them with even a tiny fraction of those amounts for their efforts.

    Leaders are generally created in the image of their superiors. And they are rewarded for their behaviors through the existing compensation systems. Until the kinds of behaviors you are talking about are actually built into how leaders are compensated, I doubt you will see much change – no matter how effective it is.

    • Hi Kathy,

      Your story is bittersweet. It’s discouraging to hear how organizations are starving for effective leadership and I know that’s more the norm than the exception. However, it’s encouraging to see the positive effectives of competent and caring leadership that you personally demonstrated.

      Thanks for adding you insights to the discussion.


  13. Pingback: Most People Don't Under-Perform, They're Under-...

  14. I couldn’t agree more with point #5. I currently work in situation where daily goals are set by management for the team and usually met, but absolutely no praise is given. The team can only go home so many days with the “I/We did a good job” mentality before that feeling of satisfaction goes away and is replaced with frustration. Instead, the team barely meets daily goals only to avoid being chastised rather than pushing themselves to meet much better production levels.

  15. Pingback: The importance of leadership -

    • I couldn’t agree with you more Timothy. I believe trust is the foundation for any successful relationship.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Best regards,


  16. Randy, I really enjoyed reading your post and I couldn’t agree with you more on many of the key points you’ve mentioned here. We all know the importance of autonomy in the work environment. Especially in an industry like mine (Human Behavior – Learning and Development) where there is no definite structure in what to do and what not to do. So it’s important to strike the balance between micro and macro management styles but how does one know if the autonomy provided by the leader is resulting in a lack of direction for the recipient instead of a liberty that the receiver can make most of?

    • Great question Mohsin. It’s important for the leader to accurately diagnose the development level of the follower on any given goal or task.

      How much competence does the person have in performing the task or achieving the goal? Has he/she done this before? How motivated is he/she? The less competence someone has, the more direction the leader needs to provide. The less motivation or confidence in performing the task, the more support the leader should provide.

      I hope that helps. Thanks for taking the time to comment and for the connection on Twitter.

      Take care,


  17. That does make sense Randy. Thanks for taking the time to share the insights on this matter. Looking forward to more posts from you on leadership.

  18. If I rephrased the blog, I’d say simply that “Many if not most people in leadership positions have no idea what they are doing.”

    So now what?

    The blog, terrific as it is, seems directed at those of us who believe we are leaders or have at least some basic knowledge of leadership. The problem lies with the great majority who wouldn’t understand this blog if you cut it up in bites and fed it to them.

    So, now what?

    • Interesting point Kathy. You are correct in that my primary audience are people in leadership or interested in the field of study. I think the answer to “now what” is to encourage people to embark on a learning journey to learn more about what leadership entails, and the very first step is identifying your core values as a person and how you want to live those out in a leadership capacity.

      Take care,


  19. As for the recent remark that many may not understand what the word “leadership” means, what the role of a leader is and how one can distinguish good leaders from poor ones, answers or at least an effort to start a new thread on this would be a great contribution to this discussion. We could look at it in 3 ways – what is the academic definition of leadership, how do those who are anointed as leaders perceive their roles to be and what do those who are led by the leaders think of their leaders’ roles.

    • Great points Sumit. “Leadership” can be difficult to define in any one particular context, but I’ve found it’s one of those things where when you see it in action you definitely know what it looks like.


      • Hi Randy, so let me start the discussion chain here with a URL I just found:

        Let me also add some characteristics that I have always felt a good leader should possess:
        1. Demonstrate fairness, respect and trust for each individual and the team every day
        2. Create an environment for honest and open dialog
        3. Lead by example and not empty words
        4. Be trustworthy, deliver on your commitments
        5. Be transparent in your decision-making
        6. Embrace and promote diversity in every shape and form
        Hope this helps.

  20. Pingback: Top 10 Posts for 2013 – Sabotage, Bullying, Broken Trust and More! |

  21. Pingback: Professional Development – 2014 – Week 39

  22. Pingback: The importance of leadership |

Leave a Reply